His office may not be furnished with expensive pieces of wood and accessories but it is decorated with awards, literally. There are several plaques and trophies, all in recognition of good service and his exemplary leadership.
One plaque reads “Best performing district chairperson” in the country (2011/2012) awarded under the local government councils Scorecard Initiative. Next to it is the Junior Staff College Gulu plaque awarded to him in appreciation of the lecturers he gives at the college on conflict management. The others are overall best performing district award (2011/2012), second best performing district in the procurement sector and the 2012 best performing district in the health sector under the ministry of Health annual health sector performance assessment. The list goes on including district championship trophies in darts and track and field athletics.
This is what “decorates” the office of Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu District Local Council chairman. At 34, Ojara is a fast-rising politician in northern Uganda, whose political hands, it can be argued, are tainted with success. Yet he would not put Gulu’s success story on his single head.
“We are doing fairly well as district because of the culture we have built,” he says. “It is not because the chairman is doing so well as an individual. It is about the team we have built. It is about the culture that allows people to do their best.”
But that is not to underestimate his leadership abilities. An FDC diehard, Ojara leads a district council dominated by NRM councillors (17 out of 31); a potential recipe for political wrangling and consequential non delivery of essential services if the case of Kampala Capital City Authority is anything to go by. Ojara, however, says history has united the political leadership in Gulu.
“All of us know what we have gone through, affected by war. So it is not about politicking but service,” he says.
This young politician also believes that he is now reaping seeds of political tolerance he sowed during the reign of Norbert Mao, the man he replaced as district chairman.
“Mao led an FDC dominated cabinet. We were 24 councillors from FDC, six NRM councillors, a few independents and just two members from his democratic party. I was district speaker and chairman of the party (FDC) in the district. If I wanted to fail Mao because of his political beliefs, I would have easily done so but we knew him as a dedicated leader so we said ‘Let’s give him an environment to lead’. I think that’s the same thing we are having now.”
Douglas Peter Okello, the district speaker who subscribes to the NRM party speaks well of Ojara. “We love our parties very dearly but Ojara having been district speaker before he became chairman understands how local governments operate so despite our political differences we front one agenda of service delivery to our people.”
From journalism to politics
Well, it seems Ojara knows how to play his politics. But this is a man who never would have been a politician but a literature secondary school teacher or journalist.
Upon graduating with a Bachelors of Education degree from Gulu University, he taught literature at Gulu Central School as a part-time teacher and practiced journalism at Choice FM in Gulu where he rapidly rose through the ranks from a sub editor to news editor and programme manager in two and half years. But one incident would be his turning point.
“The year was 2005 towards the 2006 general elections,” he recounts. “It was a very risky period here in Gulu characterised by a lot of intimidation. Col Charles Otema Awany (now brigadier) ordered all radio stations here not to allow any opposition politician on radio. I said no. I am not going to allow that. I must follow the professional line as a journalist.”
When Ojara refused to succumb to this absurd command, he was slowly sinking into people’s hearts, people who would later vote him as their leader. But the votes would not find him in the newsroom. “Every time we would be talking about the wrong things going on here; LRA abducting people, people living in the camps, corruption and the like. I was becoming more of a problem rather than solution-oriented. Then I thought; why shouldn’t I join (politics) and be part of the transformation process.”
Ojara launched his political career in 2006 when he was voted councillor representing Bardege Ward in Gulu Municipality.
Consequently, at 26, he was elected district speaker. His political star was just beginning to rise.
In 2009, he was sponsored by the US State Department to train in planning and management at local government level. He was then mentored by Conrad -Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation in Germany and received the Acumen Fund Fellowship for upcoming leaders. He says of these opportunities to have impacted his life enormously. “You think differently because of the path you have followed.”
His biggest influence
In 2011 at 31, Ojara was voted district chairman. He acknowledges that working in a post-conflict area is very challenging. “The challenges are huge. You have so much to do to address the lives that have been affected by war,” he says. Ojara himself has close memories of the war. “I come from large family where my father had three wives with 18 of us children. 10 of my siblings were either killed or abducted by the rebels.”
He remembers his father, Uma Leizeo, a former civil servant in Kitgum District, as a strict man.
“He always instructed me to listen to news. So I would do everything I had to do and make sure that news time found me attentive to the radio because upon him coming back home, he always asked that I tell him what I heard on the news.
“He also made me read books like Things Fall Apart, The River Between and Song of Lawino while I was in Primary Four. That was not pleasing at the time because other children would be playing yet I just sitted listening to news or reading a book. But they have shaped my thinking to date.”
Ojara, married with four children attends to family, office work and his studies at Gulu University where he is pursuing a Masters in Conflict Transformation Studies. “I don’t want to say I have achieved so much but God has been paving way for me.”
What others say
In his leadership, there is nothing like political differences. His lobbying strategies, has seen the district receiving many partners in areas of scholarships to the vulnerable children who were once affected by the war. He listens to all age groups,”
Sheik Musa Khelil, Acholi District Khad
“Mr Mapenduzi’s government is a mix of all political parties. Being an FDC person, people might have thought, he would bring his party members on the forefront but he hasn’t. His government has been able to deliver,”
Simon Peter Wokorach, Student Gulu University Compiled by Julius Ocungi